The Shaping of a Beckett Text: ‘Play’


Maurice Blackman


“The best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the (text! I’m trying to find a way to write one.” This remark by Samuel Beckett, made to Deirdre Bair in 1973,1 reveals much about the radically experimental dramaturgical lines that he had already been exploring in the previous decade. The starting-point for this new theatrical mode is, it seems clear, Happy days (1961). But Happy days very obviously depends for its full effect on the physical presence and the theatrical skills of a gifted actress, and the focus of its structure is still on an interrelation of word and gesture, however limited such gestures may be. It is surely to Beckett’s next theatre piece, Play (1963), that his remark applies most fully, although Not I (1972) might also, especially in view of its proximity in time, be a strong contender.


The writing of Play was an unusually protracted and complicated effort for Beckett, and it is not surprising that he felt at the time that Play was to be his last work for the theatre:2 not so much, perhaps, because of the creative effort involved, but rather because it was the most perfectly self-contained play he had produced, already achieving the ambition of which he spoke in 1973. What is significant about Play is that it lifted Beckett’s theatre on to a new level of minimalism in theatrical language, dramatic form and staging technique, and it is therefore especially worthwhile to study in detail its evolution from manuscript to final text.


Play exists in an exceptionally extensive run of manuscripts: an early version of an untitled near-ancestor, twelve typescript drafts including two partial dialogue drafts, plus one holograph manuscript and three typescripts of Comédie, the French translation. Play is also exceptional in that, unlike its predecessors, it, was produced (in German) before the final English and French versions were arrived at. Beckett himself was closely involved in this production in a way he had not previously been before. We should also, therefore, observe the influence exerted by his production experience on the subsequent development of the text.


The late Richard L. Admussen gave a good descriptive account of the then known manuscripts of Play in an article published in 1973 and catalogued all the manuscripts in a bibliographical study published in 1979.3  However, the 1973 article contains some inaccuracies and does not take into account the earliest-known version, now available in the Beckett Archive at the University of Reading Library.4 My present concern is not so much to update Admussen’s description of the Play material, but rather to analyse the evolution of Beckett’s theatrical conception and to note in detail his careful and constant attention to the staging, to the dramatic effects of the language, and to the formal properties of the play.


Beckett seems to have worked on Play over a period of at least two years. The early version known as ‘Before PLAY’ (PO in my listing; see Appendix) almost certainly dates from the latter half of 1961. But whatever the date of this preliminary text, there was certainly a period of intensive work on the first states of the text proper in the summer of 1962.5  Play seems then to have been laid aside for a few months until early 1963, when Beckett began a series of refinements to the first draft and translated the text into French. Indeed, apart from writing the scenario of Film in April-May, Beckett evidently worked on nothing else but Play and Comédie for almost the whole of 1963 (in July and August he helped prepare the Paris production of Oh les beaux jours). The French translation of Play occupied Beckett from April to June (dated on C1 and C3) and was accompanied by the polishing up of details of the English text.


By far the most important influence on Play at this time, however, was the German production in Ulm that opened on June 14. Beckett was very closely involved in the preparations from mid-May onwards, and the experience allowed him to finalize some important details of the staging that are crucial to the theatrical experience of Play as we now know it. The final touches to Play and Comédie were made in November-December 1963 (dated on P8, P9 and C3) as Beckett prepared the texts for publication and their first performances in New York, London and Paris.


In a real sense Beckett’s involvement with Play continued on into 1964: he was closely involved with the preparation of the first performances in London (March-April) and in Paris (April-June) and he issued a detailed note arising from these preparations in which he outlined further reflections on the form and staging of Play.  This note on suggested variations for the repeat (attached to P8 and published in the Minuit 1966 and Faber 1968 editions) amounts in fact to a subtle shift of emphasis in `the overall theatrical effect and allows for a new series of interpretations.6


The unique parallel evolution of Play as both text and performance, and the length of Beckett’s commitment to it, underline the importance of this work as a keystone in Beckett’s theatre. Yet it is clearly in the line of its antecedents both on a formal and on a thematic level. Like Krapp’s last tape it plays with the pathos of self-delusion, the tortures of memory and the juxtaposition of past and present. If it goes further than Happy days in exploiting the theatrical possibilities of physical limitation and the comic potential of cliché-ridden language, it nevertheless returns to the thematic world of L’Innommable―realising on stage the image of the urn-bound Mahood―and transposes in dramatic terms one of Beckett’s central themes: that of the quest for the right story, the right word which will end the misery. And, as in both Happy days and L’Innommable, we are presented in Play with characters who are apparently coerced by some malign agency into repeatedly talking about themselves. But Play synthesises these diverse elements in and pioneers a new theatrical language, innovative both in its staging techniques and in its use of language on stage. In turn, this new thematic synthesis and theatrical language became the basis of the miniature dramas of the 1960s and 1970s.


What first strikes us about Play is its overtly musical nature. Nearly all commentators rely sooner or later on musical terminology or musical analogy in discussing Play: it is evident that Beckett quite consciously set out in this work to see how far he could apply concepts derived from musical composition to the creation of a theatrical work. This sheds light on his statement to Deirdre Bair: what he is striving for in his theatre is to achieve a form of expression which exists through performance, like music, a form in which the performers are required to perform their parts like musicians, rather than to reinterpret and embellish them after the fashion of modern actors and directors. Play is Beckett’s most ambitious “musical” composition,7 a piece of chamber music, as it were, cast in a rondo form and deploying language in a distinctly musical way: a polyphonic chorus composed of basic thematic elements opening each statement, and each statement counterpointing three separate but related themes divided into two movements marked off by characteristic chords.


Such a conception of theatre should come as no surprise: Beckett’s interest in music has long been known, and he has consistently made musical allusions in his writings since his 1931 essay on Proust,8 as well as actually using music in his radio and television plays. There are, indeed, significant affinities between Play and the two radio works Words and music and Cascando, whose composition coincided with the origins of Play. These radio works explore above all the possibilities of language as aural texture, especially Cascando which shares some of the thematic concerns of Play and is based, not on dialogue, but on strands of parallel monologue which are “opened” and “closed” by Opener, who is thus directly related to the spotlight in Play.


Play’s composition also coincides with a time when musical considerations were perhaps more to the fore than usual with Beckett. Mihalovici’s operatic setting of Krapp’s last tape had had its premiere in February 1961, and in that same year Beckett first met Igor Stravinsky, having several further contacts with him in 1962; Deirdre Bair reports that in one of their conversations Beckett “quizzed Stravinsky on the possibility of notating the tempo of the performance of his play.”9 In the summer of 1962, during the Reaveys’ stay in Paris, Beckett had occasion, several times, in conversation and by letter, to speak to Jean Reavey about experimental music, and Deirdre Bair reports that, among other things, “he urged Jean Reavey to pay attention to modern music, because he believed it was the strongest influence on modern drama.”10 At about the same time he expressed to Alan Schneider his interest in studying Bartók’s music to see if it might be useful to his own writing.11


It was in precisely this very “musical” frame of mind that Beckett elaborated the first states of Play, concentrating on the aural texture and form of the language and on the basic structures of the piece. But before this stage it is important to step back a little in time and to consider Beckett’s starting point “Before PLAY” (PO). Dating probably from the latter half of 1961, PO already contains most of the elements of the stage image and the basic situation that will obtain in Play:


            Whole stage in shadow.

            Extreme front, centre, touching one another, just visible, three white

            boxes, one yard high, from which three heads protrude through holes

            close fitting to the necks. They are those, from left to right as seen

            from the auditorium, of SYKE, NICKIE and CONK, and face unde-

viatingly front throughout act. (1)


The stage headnote shows that the basic lighting idea, one of the essential staging elements of Play, is already clear in Beckett’s mind, with the stage in darkness and the light concentrated on the faces alone. However, the important notion of a single spot acting as a kind of interrogator will not emerge until much later in Play’s development. The characters are already tightly confined, but in boxes, suggesting coffins, whose whiteness helps them to be “just visible” presences in the surrounding gloom. But there is an obvious difference in the casting, where we have the exact opposite of Play: two men and one woman, not only named but also given specific visual traits:


SYKE: Bald, florid, plump, very long (18”) absolutely horizontal blond moustache

CONK: Bluey pale, sleek black hair, long profoundly drooping black


NICKIE: Red hair, milky complexion, full red lips, green earrings



They are obviously caricatures, and it is obvious that at this early stage Beckett was seeking to derive his comic effects from caricature rather than from the much richer and more subtle linguistic parody of Play.


This preliminary fragment also lacks the musical structure and complex patterning of speeches which Beckett laboured over in the first states of Play. In addition to their visual traits, the three characters of PO are differentiated by their manner of speaking. Syke’s speech is described as ‘laborious’ (2), his utterances are preceded each time by a five-second pause and are chopped up into brief sense-groups separated by short pauses. Nickie, too, has a five-second pause each time before responding, but her speech is of two kinds: a slightly frantic delivery, piling up short sentences with frequent pauses, mixed with occasional longer rambling sentences; and a more flowing delivery, stringing together slightly elliptical phrases with only a few pauses. By contrast, Conk responds immediately in long, smooth, well-balanced sentences with almost no pauses.


The structure of PO is fairly simple, so far as one can judge from an incomplete fragment. There is a brief opening sequence, mainly visual, in which the characters name themselves. Each is spotlit in turn, with long pauses each time, then there are spots on all three for ten seconds with no speech; this sequence also establishes the basic convention for the spots. Next comes a longer sequence where each character in turn establishes a personality. Nickie has a long speech in her first manner of delivery in which she protests against the light, saying she is not ready and needs more dark, and then pleading for mercy, associating it with the dark, and remembering a time when she “had not yet been through it all” (1). She is the only character who manifests any awareness of her situation, and she does so in terms that foreshadow some of W1’s speeches in the second part of Play. Next Syke and Conk present themselves, giving their background and filling out the visual caricature by their manner of speech. Nickie then gives her background, this time in her second manner, and initiates the next sequence, in which the characters narrate their memories of first meetings and allude to their subsequent triangular relationship. The fragment ends abruptly with Conk remembering how he and Nickie took leave of each other after their first sexual encounter.


Apart from Nickie’s first speech, which has close affinities with material developed in the later states of Play, there are only a few minor thematic elements which will reappear: a note of harsh jealousy (frequent on the part of Conk, only a brief hint from Syke), a certain callousness towards women from Conk, a self-assured sexuality from Nickie, a simple-minded bluffness from Syke. Syke remembers a special moment in the affair: “Grand Canary [. . .] down at noon [. . .] lie touching by the sea [. . .] months [. . .] like one [. . .]’ (4); some of these more lyrical elements will be recycled in Play. Finally, there is a gag which will recur in the later MSS: on two occasions, just after Syke has been mentioned, the spot picks him out, he opens his mouth to speak, and then the spot goes off him and onto another character.


By the summer of 1962, when Beckett began working on P1, P2 and P3, the untitled first states of Play proper, he had already changed some of his early ideas. For one thing, the characters had been changed to two women and one man: Beckett had probably decided that there was better comic potential in the bitchiness of two jealous females; perhaps also his parodic intentions were better served by being able to use the “other woman” trope. Also, the characters were no longer obvious caricatures differentiated by exaggerated appearance and individual manners of delivery (an element which would have given more scope to actorly interpretation), but had become reduced to tokens or signs―labeled first S1, S2, H, then W1, W2, M―designed to evoke a style of theatre rather than to impersonate it. The parody in Play’s first section is here achieved more subtly; through the language itself which, unlike that of PO, is a skilful potpourri of genre clichés culled from bourgeois adultery plays. It was in these first three states also that Beckett worked out the basic structure of Play and decided on a circular form.


PI is a working draft concentrating on the spoken text. It works up different sections of the play without concerning itself with the final shape. There is no stage headnote and the few stage directions were added later by hand. The first section, pages 1-3, gives a first draft of the Narration12 and is labelled by the author with the letter ‘B’ on page 1; there are only moderate corrections and additions in this part, notably a holograph insertion at the head of page 1 which envisages an opening “chord” or simultaneous start for the first three speeches. A second section, pages 3-5, is labelled “C” halfway down page 3 and represents a very early version of the Meditation; it is heavily revised with a number of additional passages inserted by means of arrows. On pages 5-6 there is a fully written out draft of the Chorus speeches and a blocked-out version superimposing the three speeches and dividing them into “bars” or rhythmical units. This section is labelled “A+D” by Beckett, an early index of the circular form that becomes clear in successive states.


P2 is a fair copy of P1, this time including full stage directions and the stage headnote. The wording of this headnote is almost identical to that of PO except for the alteration to the description of the characters: “Age: in their thirties. Appearance: indifferent” (1). The use of spotlights—multiple spots are still envisaged—is explained in a little more detail. A pause of five seconds is indicated throughout before each character responds, and, as in P1, there are a number of pauses within speeches and fairly frequent tonal indications. The Chorus now appears in its proper position and is slightly revised from P1; at this stage it is fairly long, with 26 ‘bars’ or segments. The Narration and Meditation are both also revised from P1, with some recasting and reordering of longer speeches, especially in the Meditation. The basic idea of the circular form is now made clear, with the opening Chorus returning at the end, followed by the opening ‘chord’ and M’s first line: “We were not long together―.” (8).


The fairly long speeches of P1 and its less comic and racy language were already being reworked in P2, and this was carried further in P3. Beckett was satisfied with the form and the staging details, and he concentrated in P3 on the texture of the speech: verbal details, speech rhythms and pauses, counterpointing and montage of the dialogue. The Meditation was once again more frequently revised and was obviously a source of continuing dissatisfaction. A few comic details were added to the Narration, and certain details were inserted into the Meditation to heighten the characters’ anguish and awareness, though their speeches, still quite long, showed a tendency to be over-explicit and self-pitying, with the overall effect being far less powerful than in later states of the text.


In the light of Beckett’s letter to Thomas McGreevy of 22 July 1962 (see note 5), we can fairly certainly date these first states to the period June-July 1962; since P4 is annotated in Beckett’s hand “corrected Ehrenbachhöhe August 1962,” and further, since P4a, P4b and P5 are all very closely interrelated with P4, we can assume that Beckett worked intensively during the summer of 1962 to bring the new work to a state very close to its final version.


The P4 draft shows evidence of at least five revisions. There is still no title, but the cover page bears a cast list. Alterations to the stage headnote indicate that Beckett had now rethought some details of the stage picture, envisaging urns instead of boxes and making the role of the spots more precise (though a single spot was not yet envisaged):


            Extreme front, centre, touching one another, three large white urns,

            one yard high, from which three heads protrude [. . .]

            Their speech, throughout act, will be provoked by spotlights. All

            spots on faces alone.

            Transfer of light from one face to another immediate. No blackout

            except where indicated. Extortion of speech by light not immediate.

            At every solicitation a silence of four or five seconds before voice

            begins. Except on five occasions where longer delay indicated.

            Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless except on few occa-

            sions where expression indicated. (1)


The Chorus still has 26 “bars,” though Beckett introduces M’s hiccup gag for the first time into this draft and gives him two (hiccup) pardon’s in the Chorus. There are further changes to the verbal texture of the Narration, but it does not yet have all the comic vulgarity of the later states and there are still frequent pauses within speeches. However, the montage of the speeches is now almost finalised. Beckett was still not satisfied with the Meditation, which shows moderate to extensive revisions and reorderings. M’s final speech of anguish: “Am I as much as . . . being seen?” (10) appears here for the first time, but elsewhere there are significant differences from the later states.


In the partial drafts P4a and P4b Beckett reworked the difficult Meditation to his satisfaction. Both drafts show different states of the dialogue, omitting the stage directions and opening of the Meditation, which they pick up from W2’s line: “On the other hand, things may disimprove [. . .]” With only slight differences, P4a incorporates most of the revisions in the corresponding section of P4, including the insertion of a holograph addition noted on the verso of page 7 in P4; it also develops M’s hiccup gag: “I might start to rave and bring it up for you (hiccup).” (P4a, 7). P4b represents a more thorough redistribution of the speeches, bringing this state of the Meditation closer to its final form. Neither of these states shows any alteration to the ending, so Beckett must still have been thinking in terms of the ending as in P3. There was, in other words, as yet no notion of repeating the whole play.


P5 is the final state of Play’s first version and presumably dates from the same period of intensive work as the preceding drafts. Its pages are numbered in two sections, [1]-5 and then [1]-4, apparently indicating two stages of work. There is still no title. The first section, consisting of headnote, Chorus, Narration and the beginning of the Meditation, is fairly extensively revised on the first two pages. Beckett has reconsidered the timing and rhythm and alters the headnote’s indication: “a silence of four or five seconds before voice begins” to a silence of “two seconds” (p. [1]); there is also a holograph note in the margin: “Whole movement as rapid as possible.” The Chorus is slightly shortened from its original 26 segments, and the pauses within speeches are regularly struck out. Like its immediate predecessors, P5 is chiefly concerned with details of the verbal texture: there are a number of changes to the Narration speeches the general effect of which is to heighten the comedy by increasing the internal echoes and puns between speeches and to perfect the comic balance between vulgar and hypercorrect vocabulary. Wi’s insulting description of W2 achieves its final form here after many variations in the earlier states, and M’s hiccup gag is extended into the Narration. The Meditation, which is begun again on the second page 1 after a false start on page 5, is concerned to polish up the central dialogue and omits both the opening chord and the final reprise of the Chorus. Beckett’s conception of the structure seems unchanged from what it was in P3 and P4: a circular form composed of a Chorus followed by a brief opening chord, then a Narration movement with a transitional chord to a Meditation movement, and a finale made up of a repeat of the first Chorus and opening chord; the whole to be delivered at a rapid tempo.


By September 1962 Beckett must have felt that the effort expended on revising his new play had reached a state that was more or less final; at any rate, he seems to have laid it aside until the end of 1962 or the beginning of 1963.13 It was most probably at this time that he prepared P6, the first draft to bear the title Play, with a view to the forthcoming German production.14


In studying this draft it is important to distinguish carefully between the original typescript and the subsequent revisions onto it:  it is my contention that the revisions on P6 derive from Beckett’s experience of translating the text into French and then preparing Play for its German production. The typescript itself is based on the corrected text of P5 with a few small differences, the main one being that the Chorus is now in its final form with 17 ‘bars’ instead of the original 26.  There is, however, an important adjustment to the form of. Play:  P6 contains, for the first time, direction “Repeat play” (14) between the reprise of the Chorus and the closing chord. This alteration thus fixes the essential spiral structure of Play as we now know it, with the whole play being repeated after the reprise of the Chorus, instead of the earlier notion of a simple circular structure terminating on the Chorus with which it began.


The typescript then underwent three separate revisions, to judge from their different coloured inks. It seems clear enough that the first two revisions were connected with Beckett’s work on the French translation, drafts C1 and C2, and can thus be dated April-May 1963: they concern (1) alterations to the verbal detail of the speeches (mostly in the Meditation); and (2) alterations to the headnote’s description of the characters, implied by holograph material on the title page.


C1 is a holograph draft of the dialogue based on the original typescript of P6; at this stage Beckett does not bother to translate the stage directions or the final sequence, though on the verso of page 9 there is a translation of the headnote as it appears in the typescript (i.e., without the holograph additions on P6, which must therefore come from a later revision related to C2). C2 is an expanded version of C1 and includes the stage directions as well as improving the rather literally translated French of C1; in this `ler état’ of his French version Beckett is considering two alternative titles, Comédie and Que Comédie. As a title, Comédie already suggests fewer associations than Play. Beckett must have decided that Que Comédie was an even more limiting title, with its direct link to the man’s lines: ‘Je le sais maintenant, tout cela n’était que . . . comédie’ and `Tout ceci, quand est-ce que tout ceci n’aura été que [. . .] comédie?’ (Comédie 23). At any rate, the choice was resolved by June 1963 when C3 was typed.


The refinements to the French text of C2―itself revised apparently four times―concern the texture of the language: rhythm, phrasing, word play, the comic admixture of colloquialisms and more genteel diction. A more concise and vivid syntax is employed, with, for example, the passé simple as the dominant verb tense (it had been the passé composé in C1) and most of the questions recast into the simpler inverted form rather than using est-ce que. The range of insulting epithets deployed by the characters acquires finer shades of distinction, and Fi’s disdainful description of F2 is revised into its final richly assonant form: “Face de lune, bouffie, boutonneuse, bouche deux boudins, bajoues, mamelles à vous faire― (5).


The work of revising the French translation must have accompanied Beckett’s involvement in the German production, and this involvement no doubt led him to give more particular attention to details of the stage picture he wanted. C2’s title page has two interesting holograph additions relating to the head stage note. In the top right corner are the following details all of which are scored through:


            Age et aspect d’éternité

            On entrevoit la blancheur des 3 urnes

            Voix sourdes (faibles)

            Inintelligibles pour la plupart


In the top left corner is the following, of which only the third line is deleted:


            Sans âge et pour ainsi dire

            sans aspect. Trois masques parlants

            (presque aussi semblable [deleted])

            à peine + [i.e. `plus’] différenciés que les urnes


These annotations clearly correspond to holograph material on P6’s title page, and probably precede it. In the centre of the P6 title page is the following deleted note:


All age and appearance is abstracted

and then:


Faces (so petrified beyond age and aspect [deleted]) so lost to age and aspect (as to be scarcely more

(differentiated than the urns [deleted]) as to seem almost part of urns.

            But masks forbidden.


It is interesting to note that in photos of the Ulm production the actors’ faces are noticeably differentiated: perhaps the extra precision results from Beckett’s dissatisfaction with this aspect of the production.


The stage head note of P6 has another very important alteration which can only have come from Beckett’s production experience at Ulm and which has since become one of the integral and remarkable elements of Play’s impact on stage. The original typescript note on page 1 reads:


Their speech, throughout act, will be provoked by spotlights. All spots on faces alone.


just as it had read in P4. In what must have been the third and final revision to P6, probably in June 1963, this note is altered by hand to:


Their speech throughout will be provoked by a spotlight projected on faces alone (see note p.  )15


An identical correction appears at the same position on C2:


La parole leur est extorqués par un projecteur se braquant sur les visages seuls (voir p. )


In both cases the page number is left blank and no note in fact appears in either version: I take this to be an indication that this was indeed a very late revision, made after the rehearsals, when Beckett realised that the three separate spots he had originally specified did not adequately convey his notion of the light as an inquisitor; they probably also affected the pace of the play, and it is noteworthy that particular attention is paid to the question of pace in subsequent states.


P7 and C3 are closely related and were both typed in June 1963 (dated on C3). P7 incorporates all the corrections of P6 including the important alterations and additions to the stage head note. This time, however, there is a note on page 13 specifying Beckett’s final conception of the light and how it should be operated in terms virtually identical to those of the note as published in the Faber and Grove editions. The title page of P7 is inscribed ‘SB corrected’ and has a note “Erskine for Arsene throughout,” though this correction is not made in the text. (In all preceding states, both in English and in French, the butler had been called “Arsene”: this name was altered by hand to “Frontin” in C2 and appears as such in C3.) Finally, the speeches in P7 show a small number of alterations of detail that seem to be suggested by refinements to the text of C2.


P8 is another copy of the text of P7: it incorporates or adds by hand most of the corrections of P7, but it also omits a number of them―for instance, the butler’s name is still “Arsene.” The status of P8 is something of a puzzle: the title page is inscribed “10” and dated “Ussy December 1963,” yet the text obviously precedes that of P9 and P10 (marked by Beckett “8” and “9” respectively; “8” is dated “Ussy November 1963”).  Further the title page is annotated “Conform with Faber proofs and script sent to George 12.1.64.” Since the Faber edition is based closely on the draft numbered “9,” it would seem that Beckett is writing a note to remind himself to correct this earlier version so that it conforms with the Faber edition, of which Beckett presumably had the proofs at the end of 1963 (it was published on 26 March 196416). Why he should do this is not entirely clear—why not just make a copy from the Faber proofs if another copy were needed? —and in any case, the P8 text is not so corrected.


What does seem clear is that in November and December 1963 Beckett worked on the final revisions of Play and Comédie in preparation for their publication and for the productions in New York, London and Paris.17 Apart from a few minor variations in the speeches, the main difference between P9 and preceding states lies in changes to the headnote and the addition of a note on the urns. The headnote now specifies that the urns should be grey, not white, and indicates that Beckett has again reconsidered the play’s pace:


The reaction to light is instantaneous. No pause between stimulus and reflex (speech) except where indicated. [. . .]

            Very rapid tempo throughout. (1)


All previous states, as far back as PO, had imagined a pause before the characters responded to the light: originally specified as “five seconds,” it became a more flexible “four or five seconds” in P4 and was reduced to “two seconds” in P5 and P6, which also specified “rapid tempo throughout.” The original production in Ulm must have been played at this pace, and Beckett apparently found it still too slow; perhaps he also wished to emphasise the automatism of the “stimulus―response” effect and to remove any suggestion of hesitation conveyed by allowing the characters to pause before speaking. When he revised C3 in November he crossed out the original paragraph on timing and added the following marginal note:


Immédiate également la réaction au projecteur. Aucun décalage entre la sollicitation lumineuse et le déclenchement de la parole, sauf aux endroits où un temps est indiqué.


and then further down:


            Débit rapide.

            Mouvement très vif d’un bout à I’autre. (1)


The accelerated pace is reinforced by regular alteration of the length of the blackouts after Chorus, Narration and Meditation: from ‘cinq secondes’ they are all changed to ‘trois secondes’. Beckett even crosses out the few pauses within speeches indicated by three dots (though there is a marginal note on page 1: ‘Rétablir points de suspension’). P9 incorporates these changes first made on C3, including the changed timing for the blackouts.


The additional note on the urns appears for the first time in P9 (12):


In order for the urns to be only one yard high it is necessary either that traps be used, enabling the actors to stand below stage level, or that they kneel throughout the play (the urns being open at the back).


Should traps not be feasible, and the sitting [sic] posture found impracticable, the actors should stand, the urns be increased to full length and moved back from front to mid-stage, the tallest actor setting the height, the most broad-shouldered the breadth, to which the three urns should conform.


The sitting posture results in urns of inconvenient bulk and is not to be considered.


Beckett’s more exact specification of the stage image probably stems from another dissatisfaction with the German production. Photos of the Ulm Play clearly show urns that, though grey in colour, are not touching one another and have a quite bulky appearance: they must have made the spotlight operator’s task even more difficult, though the actors were probably able to sit comfortably inside them.


There is the beginning of a holograph French translation of the note on Urns on page 12 of P9, but this is crossed out and no such note appears in any of the states of Comédie, nor in the Minuit edition (which also contains no notes on the Light or the Chorus, though these appear in C3).


C4 seems to be the next state: it incorporates most of the corrections on C3 with a few extra variations but omits the notes on the Light and the Chorus. Beckett’s conception of the pace is still not finalised the relevant part of the headnote now reads simply “La réponse à lumière est instantanée” and the “points de suspension” are reinstated in conformity with the note on C3. The length of the blackouts is given as “cinq secondes” throughout in the typescript, but this is again altered to “trois secondes” except in the case of the three blackouts of the finale.


P10, which is a carbon copy of P9 with some alterations, gives us yet another conception of the pace. The relevant paragraph of the headnote is corrected by hand to read:


The response to light is not quite immediate. At every solicitation a pause of about one second before utterance is achieved, except where a longer delay is indicated.


and the blackouts are regularly altered from “three seconds” back to “five seconds.” In addition, “Arsene” is changed to “Erskine” throughout: this instruction from P7 was not carried out on either P8 or P9. Except for some minor verbal details in the speeches, P10 is thus very close to the Faber edition of 1964 and the Grove edition.


These editions, do not however, represent the final state of Play, as the 1964 productions in London and Paris led to a new conception of Play’s form. In a note based on his experience of these two productions Beckett opens up the possibility of a choice of form for this work: either an exact repeat (akin to a musical rondo) or a repeat with variations in the order of speeches (one thinks perhaps of a ricercare; plus a final coda consisting of an abridged chorus and a fragment of a second repeat). The note also suggests a subtle variation in the stage image, and hence in the dramatic metaphor: Beckett mentions a series o gradations in the lighting with corresponding variations in the vocal levels, all of which he so arranges as to complement the spiral form and to suggest the notion of a gradual running down; he also suggests an increasingly breathless quality in the voices to further point up this idea. This note attached to P8 although much later than it, was first published in the Minuit 1966 edition and then in the Faber 1968 second edition; both of these also specify a slightly more rapid pace than the first editions in English.


In 1966 Beckett collaborated on a filmed version of the Paris production of Comédie. The film’s sound track was processed on a phonogène, a specially developed tape recorder which is able to speed up the delivery of lines without altering the quality of voice or articulation;18 Beckett was thus able to realise an ideal pace for the play such as could never be obtained in the theatre, even if performed with the daredevil skill and breakneck speed of the 1976 Royal Court production.


Finally, it is of interest to note that more recently, Beckett has returned to his notion of the form as an exact repeat: the 1976 Royal Court production played the repeat without variation, and Beckett currently regards the variations “as having little impact and being too difficult, especially for the spot.”19


This reconstruction of Play’s evolution through the various states of composition, translation and staging has pointed to the apparently seminal importance for Beckett’s theatrical imagination of a striking and suggestive stage image, and has shown his early concern for formal perfection. Beckett’s working process of constant refinement and attention to detail has frequently been commented upon and is borne out yet again in this study. The unusually large number of states in the shaping of Play not only shows this habitual perfectionism, however, but also reveals Beckett at work forging a new kind of relationship between the vocal and visual elements of his stage image and its formal and metaphorical aspects. Helped by this direct involvement in the German production, he was able to achieve a direct yet subtle integration at all these levels and to inscribe his total desired dramatic effect wholly within the text of Play, rendering it independent of the producer or the actor in a way which relates this text to a musical score.


The prolonged composition of Play seems to represent a kind of initiation process through which Beckett’s theatre passed onto a new level of refinement and acquired a new, more self-contained mode of theatrical expression. The process effectively created a new Samuel Beckett, who combined within himself the functions of author and metteur en scène. Since Play, he has more and more frequently assumed this double function.




For full descriptions of the known manuscripts of Play and Comédie the reader is referred to the late Richard L. Admussen’s The Samuel Beckett Manuscripts: a study (Boston, G.K. Hall, 1979) pages 30-32 and 77-80. Note, however, that Admussen’s entries for Play labelled J and L are confused and partially transposed, and hence quite misleading, and that in the case of his Play entries labelled B and D, the second sections, separately paginated in each case, should in fact be regarded as separate (and later) partial drafts: see below.


For access to the manuscripts, I acknowledge my gratitude to the helpful staff of the Samuel Beckett Collection, University of Reading Library and of the Samuel Beckett Collection, Special Collections, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis, Missouri. I would also like to thank Samuel Beckett for his permission to quote from unpublished material.


P0        Typed ms., 4 leaves. Unfinished play in English representing earliest known version. No title. First leaf inscribed in author’s hand “Before PLAY.” (Admussen’s A)


P1        Typed ms., 6 leaves. First draft, incomplete, not yet ordered into basic form. No title. First leaf marked “I” in author’s hand. (Admussen’s B, [i]-6)


P2        Typed ms., 9 leaves. First stage draft; basic order now fixed and full stage directions. No title. First leaf marked “II” in author’s hand. (Admussen’s C)


P3        Typed ms., 9 leaves. Fair copy, incorporating revisions on P2. No title. First leaf marked “3” in author’s hand. (Admussen’s D, [1]-9)


P4        Typed ms., 12 leaves. Expanded version of P3 with extensive revisions and additions. No title, but separate page with cast list. First leaf marked in author’s hand “4” and “Corrected Ehrenbachhöhe August 1962.” (Admussen’s E)


P4a      Typed ms., 3 leaves numbered 6-8. Partial dialogue draft, few stage directions, based on Meditation section of P4. Incorporates corrections on P4. (Admussen’s B, 6-8)


P4b      Typed ms., 3 leaves numbered [i]-3. Partial dialogue draft, no stage directions, reworking of P4a. First leaf marked “3A (Part 2)” in author’s hand. (Admussen’s D, second part)


P5        Typed ms., 9 leaves. Incorporates all corrections and revisions on P4, P4a and P4b. No title. Pages numbered in two sections: [i]-5 correspond to Chorus, Narration and beginning of Meditation on P4, then [1]-4 correspond to revised Meditation on P4b with further reworking. Lacks ending. First leaf marked “5” in author’s hand.

(Admussen’s F)


P6        Typed ms. (carbon), 17                        C1       Autograph ms., 10 leaves not

leaves. First of final drafts,                     numbered.

based on P5 though more                     First draft of translation,

complete. Stage directions                    based on P6. No stage direc-

extensively revised; infre-                      tions, though verso of p. [9]

quent revisions elsewhere. Ti-               has translation of opening

tle page: PLAY/An Act/by                    stage note. First leaf marked

Samuel Beckett. Title page                    “I” in author’s hand and dated

also bears important notes                     “Ussy avril-mai 1963.”

and name of German theatre                 (Admussen’s A)

(Ulmer Theater Ulm-Donau)

where play was first pro-

duced, and is marked “6” in

author’s hand.

(Admussen’s G)


P7        Typed ms. (carbon), 15                        C2       Typed ms. (carbon), 16

leaves. Corrected version of                  leaves. Expanded version of

P6 also incorporating some                   C1 including stage directions.

suggestions from C2. In-                       Fairly frequent revisions. Title

cludes notes on Light and                      page has alternative titles:

Chorus. Title page: PLAY/A                 COMEDIE/OUE COMEDIE,

Play in One Act/by/Samuel                   and is marked “ler état” in author’s

Beckett. Title page has                          hand.

annotation “Erskine for

Arsene throughout,” is initial-                 (Admussen’s B)

led and marked “corrected”

and “7” in author’s hand.


(Admussen’s H)


P8        Typed ms. (carbon), 15                        C3       Typed ms., 14 leaves.

leaves. Another version of P7                Incorporates revisions on C2

incorporating some but not all                with some suggestions from

revisions. Infrequent correc-                  P7. Includes notes on Light

tions, mainly typos. Title                        and Chorus from P7. Moder-

page: PLAY/A Play in One                   ate revisions. Title page:

Act/by/Samuel Beckett. This                 COMEDIE/Un Acte/de/

title page causes some confu-                Samuel Beckett. Title page

sion since, although marked                   marked in author’s hand

“10” in Beckett’s hand and                   ‘Tapé Schmittenhöhe juin 63/

dated “Ussy December 1963,”                         Corrige Ussy nov 63’.

it actually precedes his ‘8’ and

“9.” Title page is also marked                (Admussen’s C)

“Conform with Faber proofs

and script sent to george,                      P9        Typed ms. (carbon), 14

12.1.64” (i.e. 12 January).                    leaves. Final draft based on

P.12 has note on Light and                    P7, though some revisions on

Chorus as in P7, but none on                P7 not incorporated; also in

Urns; butler’s name is still                      corporates some suggestions

Arsene. There is an additional               from C3. Includes notes on

final page marked ‘Notes                      Urns, Light and Chorus plus

made after National Theatre                  beginning of French transla-

Prodeuction’ which contains                  tion of note on Urns, crossed

lengthy note on repeating the                 out. Title page: PLAY/A Play

play and presumably dates                    in One Act/by/Samuel Beck-

from March or April 1964.                   ett. Title page dated “Ussy

                                                                        November 1963” and marked

(Admussen’s J, with correc-                 “8” in author’s hand.


                                                                        (Admussen’s I)


P10      Typed ms. (carbon), 14            C4       Typed ms. (carbon),     15

leaves. Carbon copy of P9                    leaves. Incorporates most re

with very infrequent revi-                       visions on C3 though some

sions. “Arsene” changed to                   slight differences elsewhere.

“Erskine” throughout follow-                 No note on Urns, Light or

ing annotation on P7 title                       Chorus.        Title             page:

page; other corrections                         COMEDIE/Un             Acte/de/

mainly typos, except for al-                   Samuel Beckett. Title page

teration to head stage note                    initialled and marked in au-

and slight changes to some                    thor’s hand ‘Etat définitif. En-

stage directions. Title page                    voyé à Suhrkamp 27.4.64’.

marked “9” in author’s hand.

Presumed date November                                (Admussen’s D)

1963 (from P9).


(Admussen’s L is completely

anomalous here)

1Quoted in Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: a biography, London, Picador, 1980, p. 433.


2 Samuel Beckett, letter to Thomas McGreevy, 11 May 1963; paraphrased by Bair, op. cit., p. 474.

3 Richard L. Admussen, ‘The manuscripts of Beckett’s Play in Modern drama, vol. 16, 1973, p. 23-27;The

  Samuel Beckett Manuscripts: a study, Boston, G.K. Hall, 1979.


4 University of Reading Library, R.U.L. Ms. 1227/7/16/6.


5 I have been here for the past week struggling with a new short play I can’t get right [. . .] Back to the

  battle, lights and voices’. Samuel Beckett, letter to Thomas McGreevy, 22 July 1962; quoted by Bair, op.

  cit., p. 462.

6See for example James Knowlson’s discussion of Play in James Knowlson and

   John Pilling, Frescoes of the skull: the later prose and drama of Samuel Beckett,

   London, John Calder, 1979, pp. 118-119.



7 The early critics were already alert to the musical analogies: see for instance the review of Play in The

   Times, 8 April 1964, p. 10, and Laurence Kitchin’s discussion of it in The Listener, 30 April 1964, p. 718-



8 In this essay Beckett speaks of ‘the beautiful convention of the ‘da capo’ as a testimony to the intimate and

   ineffable nature of an art that is perfectly intelligible and perfectly inexplicable’; Proust and Three

   dialogues with Georges Duthuit, London, Calder & Boyars, 1965, p. 92.


9Bair, op. cit, p. 462. See also Robert Craft, Stravinsky:  chronicle of a friendship, 1948-1971, London,

   Gollancz, 1972, p. 153 ff.



10 Bair, op. cit., p. 465. Bair paraphrases Beckett’s remarks from the unpublished diaries of Jean Reavey

     and from a letter by Samuel Beckett dated 6 August 1962.



11 Alan Schneider, paraphrased by Bair, op. cit., p. 465.

12 Beckett termed the sections of Play the Chorus, the Narration and the Meditation; see Martin Esslin,

     ‘Samuel Beckett and the art of broadcasting’, Encounter, September 1975, p. 44.


13 Beckett spent the month of October and part of November 1962 in London assisting with the preparation

     of Happy days for production. He was also finalising the translation of Oh les beaux jours at about this

     time; see Bair, op. cit., p. 466-470.


14Erika and Elmar Tophoven worked on the German translation of PIay in February and March 1963; it

     was prepared and rehearsed in April and May, and opened on 14 June 1963. The title page of P6 is

     inscribed on the bottom left-hand corner:  ‘Ulmer Theater/Ulm/Donau’.


15 To reinforce this change, the lighting directions in the typescript are regularly altered from the form ‘Spot

    off W1 and on W2’ to `Spot from W1 to W2’.

16 See Raymond Federman and John Fletcher, Samuel Beckett:  his works and his critics, Berkeley, Los

     Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1970, p. 34.


17Play was first published in London by Faber and Faber in March 1964; it was produced in New York at

     the Cherry Lane Theater on 4 January 1964, and in London at the National Theatre (Old Vic) on 7 April

     1964. Comédie was first published in Lettres nouvelles, XII, June-August 1964, and was produced in

     Paris at the Pavilion de Marsan on 11 June 1964.



18 See Anon., `Quand Beckett tourne Comédie’, Arts, 19-25 January 1966, p. 29, and Clas Zilliacus ,

    Beckett and broadcasting, Abo Akademi, 1976, p. 151.


19Samuel Beckett, letter to the author, 2 September 1981.